Skakel lawyer finds insight on Internet.
By J.A. Johnson Jr. Greenwich Time.
Published: September 7, 1999
Michael Sherman is always thinking on his feet.
It is this quality, of innovation in the vigorous representation of clients, that has made him a much sought criminal defense lawyer.
It is what vaulted Sherman Sherman into the national spotlight in 1985. After a client's first trial on a rape charge ended in a hung Sherman hired a juror from the first trial as a consultant in selecting a panel for the second trial. The tactic, widely criticized in legal circles, was outlawed by the General Assembly the following year in legislation some referred to as the "Sherman Law."
The Stamford attorney's fame or notoriety grew still further through his pioneering of the post-traumatic stress disorder defense that won acquittal of a Vietnam veteran on a murder charge in 1990.
Now, at age 52, Sherman continues to try new approaches as he represents the apparent prime suspect in one of the highest profile criminal cases in Greenwich history, the 1975 murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley. With the possibility of a trial looming, Sherman seems to have a focus group without having to pay for one on the World Wide Web.
At www.marthamoxley.com, the address of a Web site devoted to the Moxley case,,a group of visitor's have regularly registered their comments thoughts, and often their own theories, about the case on, a message board. Sherman said he has been monitoring the site since last year, after being hired by one of the suspects who suddenly found himself a target of a grand jury investigation.
"One has to believe that the folks who post these messages may very well be a microcosm, or a decent sampling, of the public the same public who, if there ever is a trial, will be deliberating my client's fate." Sherman said Friday.
Sherman recently took things a step further when he entered a chat room linked to the Moxley Web site. Each Monday evening, a dedicated bunch of true-crime junkies calling themselves Cybersleuths, convene in the chat room to compare notes on the Greenwich murder. When invited to join in the discussion, Sherman accepted immediately, finding an opportunity to interact with a group that was highly knowledgeable about the case.
"This is like a free focus group. They are lay people talking about issues concerning a case I may have to try," Sherman said.
The Moxley murder has garnered widespread attention because two nephews of Ethel Kennedy are suspects. The case has spawned two nonfiction books, inspired a novel and television miniseries, and the Web site. Sherman represents Michael Skakel, believed to be the main target of a grand jury convened last summer in an attempt to solve the 24-year-old homicide.
Focus groups, be they for the marketing of a new product or television sitcom, are meant to reflect the likes, dislikes and basic values of the public at large. The same holds true when used for trial preparation, as defense lawyers seek a glimpse into the minds of potential jurors.
But because participants in the weekly Internet chat are so well versed on the Moxley case, apparently having read the books and following the case in the news, some defense lawyers do not see their conversations as pertinent.
"The whole purpose of a focus group is to find out what a particular person from a particular background, particular social status and income, particular race, etc., thinks About a case," New Haven attorney Hugh Keefe said. "I don't care about the thoughts of people who have no lives and spend an inordinate amount of time chatting away on the Internet. I think it's relatively worthless."
Said Hartford attorney Ralph Elliot: "These people would be just the opposite of a focus group. A focus group should be an intelligent tabula rasa (blank slate), people who mirror society and to whom you feed data 'and get their reactions. This is a group, on the other hand, that already has a ton of data, and members of such groups tend to merely talk to each other to confirm that data that they already have and make themselves more secure in those beliefs they already have."
Still, other attorneys said Sherman deserves credit for going ankle-deep into the still largely unexplored waters of cyberspace.
"It's a creative tactic," said Philip Russell, a noted Greenwich criminal defense lawyer and former Bronx assistant district attorney. "I know I would be very interested in learning what people sympathetic to the victim are most sensitive about, because if there are any weak spots in their common perception I would want to find that common thread and exploit it.
For example, if most of the criticism in the chat room concerned a particular piece of evidence which would cast doubt on a particular defendant, I would want to know 'how that item of evidence could be best exploited at trial."